Friday, April 23, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - Don’t Cry for Wall Street -
April 23, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
Don’t Cry for Wall Street

On Thursday, President Obama went to Manhattan, where he urged an audience drawn largely from Wall Street to back financial reform. “I believe,” he declared, “that these reforms are, in the end, not only in the best interest of our country, but in the best interest of the financial sector.”

Well, I wish he hadn’t said that — and not just because he really needs, as a political matter, to take a populist stance, to put some public distance between himself and the bankers. The fact is that Mr. Obama should be trying to do what’s right for the country — full stop. If doing so hurts the bankers, that’s O.K.

More than that, reform actually should hurt the bankers. A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy. Shrinking that oversized industry won’t make Wall Street happy, but what’s bad for Wall Street would be good for America.

Now, the reforms currently on the table — which I support — might end up being good for the financial industry as well as for the rest of us. But that’s because they only deal with part of the problem: they would make finance safer, but they might not make it smaller.

What’s the matter with finance? Start with the fact that the modern financial industry generates huge profits and paychecks, yet delivers few tangible benefits.

Remember the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” in which Gordon Gekko declared: Greed is good? By today’s standards, Gekko was a piker. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the financial industry accounted for a third of total domestic profits — about twice its share two decades earlier.

These profits were justified, we were told, because the industry was doing great things for the economy. It was channeling capital to productive uses; it was spreading risk; it was enhancing financial stability. None of those were true. Capital was channeled not to job-creating innovators, but into an unsustainable housing bubble; risk was concentrated, not spread; and when the housing bubble burst, the supposedly stable financial system imploded, with the worst global slump since the Great Depression as collateral damage.

So why were bankers raking it in? My take, reflecting the efforts of financial economists to make sense of the catastrophe, is that it was mainly about gambling with other people’s money. The financial industry took big, risky bets with borrowed funds — bets that paid high returns until they went bad — but was able to borrow cheaply because investors didn’t understand how fragile the industry was.

And what about the much-touted benefits of financial innovation? I’m with the economists Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny, who argue in a recent paper that a lot of that innovation was about creating the illusion of safety, providing investors with “false substitutes” for old-fashioned assets like bank deposits. Eventually the illusion failed — and the result was a disastrous financial crisis.

In his Thursday speech, by the way, Mr. Obama insisted — twice — that financial reform won’t stifle innovation. Too bad.

And here’s the thing: after taking a big hit in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, financial-industry profits are soaring again. It seems all too likely that the industry will soon go back to playing the same games that got us into this mess in the first place.

So what should be done? As I said, I support the reform proposals of the Obama administration and its Congressional allies. Among other things, it would be a shame to see the antireform campaign by Republican leaders — a campaign marked by breathtaking dishonesty and hypocrisy — succeed.

But these reforms should be only the first step. We also need to cut finance down to size.

And it’s not just critical outsiders saying this (not that there’s anything wrong with critical outsiders, who have been much more right than supposedly knowledgeable insiders; see Greenspan, Alan). An intriguing proposal is about to be unveiled from, of all places, the International Monetary Fund. In a leaked paper prepared for a meeting this weekend, the fund calls for a Financial Activity Tax — yes, FAT — levied on financial-industry profits and remuneration.

Such a tax, the fund argues, could “mitigate excessive risk-taking.” It could also “tend to reduce the size of the financial sector,” which the fund presents as a good thing.

Now, the I.M.F. proposal is actually quite mild. Nonetheless, if it moves toward reality, Wall Street will howl.

But the fact is that we’ve been devoting far too large a share of our wealth, far too much of the nation’s talent, to the business of devising and peddling complex financial schemes — schemes that have a tendency to blow up the economy. Ending this state of affairs will hurt the financial industry. So?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - Looters in Loafers -
April 19, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
Looters in Loafers

Last October, I saw a cartoon by Mike Peters in which a teacher asks a student to create a sentence that uses the verb “sacks,” as in looting and pillaging. The student replies, “Goldman Sachs.”

Sure enough, last week the Securities and Exchange Commission accused the Gucci-loafer guys at Goldman of engaging in what amounts to white-collar looting.

I’m using the term looting in the sense defined by the economists George Akerlof and Paul Romer in a 1993 paper titled “Looting: The Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit.” That paper, written in the aftermath of the savings-and-loan crisis of the Reagan years, argued that many of the losses in that crisis were the result of deliberate fraud.

Was the same true of the current financial crisis?

Most discussion of the role of fraud in the crisis has focused on two forms of deception: predatory lending and misrepresentation of risks. Clearly, some borrowers were lured into taking out complex, expensive loans they didn’t understand — a process facilitated by Bush-era federal regulators, who both failed to curb abusive lending and prevented states from taking action on their own. And for the most part, subprime lenders didn’t hold on to the loans they made. Instead, they sold off the loans to investors, in some cases surely knowing that the potential for future losses was greater than the people buying those loans (or securities backed by the loans) realized.

What we’re now seeing are accusations of a third form of fraud.

We’ve known for some time that Goldman Sachs and other firms marketed mortgage-backed securities even as they sought to make profits by betting that such securities would plunge in value. This practice, however, while arguably reprehensible, wasn’t illegal. But now the S.E.C. is charging that Goldman created and marketed securities that were deliberately designed to fail, so that an important client could make money off that failure. That’s what I would call looting.

And Goldman isn’t the only financial firm accused of doing this. According to the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism Web site ProPublica, several banks helped market designed-to-fail investments on behalf of the hedge fund Magnetar, which was betting on that failure.

So what role did fraud play in the financial crisis? Neither predatory lending nor the selling of mortgages on false pretenses caused the crisis. But they surely made it worse, both by helping to inflate the housing bubble and by creating a pool of assets guaranteed to turn into toxic waste once the bubble burst.

As for the alleged creation of investments designed to fail, these may have magnified losses at the banks that were on the losing side of these deals, deepening the banking crisis that turned the burst housing bubble into an economy-wide catastrophe.

The obvious question is whether financial reform of the kind now being contemplated would have prevented some or all of the fraud that now seems to have flourished over the past decade. And the answer is yes.

For one thing, an independent consumer protection bureau could have helped limit predatory lending. Another provision in the proposed Senate bill, requiring that lenders retain 5 percent of the value of loans they make, would have limited the practice of making bad loans and quickly selling them off to unwary investors.

It’s less clear whether proposals for derivatives reform — which mainly involve requiring that financial instruments like credit default swaps be traded openly and transparently, like ordinary stocks and bonds — would have prevented the alleged abuses by Goldman (although they probably would have prevented the insurer A.I.G. from running wild and requiring a federal bailout). What we can say is that the final draft of financial reform had better include language that would prevent this kind of looting — in particular, it should block the creation of “synthetic C.D.O.’s,” cocktails of credit default swaps that let investors take big bets on assets without actually owning them.

The main moral you should draw from the charges against Goldman, though, doesn’t involve the fine print of reform; it involves the urgent need to change Wall Street. Listening to financial-industry lobbyists and the Republican politicians who have been huddling with them, you’d think that everything will be fine as long as the federal government promises not to do any more bailouts. But that’s totally wrong — and not just because no such promise would be credible.

For the fact is that much of the financial industry has become a racket — a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit consumers and investors. And if we don’t lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - The Fire Next Time -
April 16, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
The Fire Next Time

On Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, called for the abolition of municipal fire departments.

Firefighters, he declared, “won’t solve the problems that led to recent fires. They will make them worse.” The existence of fire departments, he went on, “not only allows for taxpayer-funded bailouts of burning buildings; it institutionalizes them.” He concluded, “The way to solve this problem is to let the people who make the mistakes that lead to fires pay for them. We won’t solve this problem until the biggest buildings are allowed to burn.”

O.K., I fibbed a bit. Mr. McConnell said almost everything I attributed to him, but he was talking about financial reform, not fire reform. In particular, he was objecting not to the existence of fire departments, but to legislation that would give the government the power to seize and restructure failing financial institutions.

But it amounts to the same thing.

Now, Mr. McConnell surely isn’t sincere; while pretending to oppose bank bailouts, he’s actually doing the bankers’ bidding. But before I get to that, let’s talk about why he’s wrong on substance.

In his speech, Mr. McConnell seemed to be saying that in the future, the U.S. government should just let banks fail. We “must put an end to taxpayer funded bailouts for Wall Street banks.” What’s wrong with that?

The answer is that letting banks fail — as opposed to seizing and restructuring them — is a bad idea for the same reason that it’s a bad idea to stand aside while an urban office building burns. In both cases, the damage has a tendency to spread. In 1930, U.S. officials stood aside as banks failed; the result was the Great Depression. In 2008, they stood aside as Lehman Brothers imploded; within days, credit markets had frozen and we were staring into the economic abyss.

So it’s crucial to avoid disorderly bank collapses, just as it’s crucial to avoid out-of-control urban fires.

Since the 1930s, we’ve had a standard procedure for dealing with failing banks: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has the right to seize a bank that’s on the brink, protecting its depositors while cleaning out the stockholders. In the crisis of 2008, however, it became clear that this procedure wasn’t up to dealing with complex modern financial institutions like Lehman or Citigroup.

So proposed reform legislation gives regulators “resolution authority,” which basically means giving them the ability to deal with the likes of Lehman in much the same way that the F.D.I.C. deals with conventional banks. Who could object to that?

Well, Mr. McConnell is trying. His talking points come straight out of a memo Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant, circulated in January on how to oppose financial reform. “Frankly,” wrote Mr. Luntz, “the single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout.” And Mr. McConnell is following those stage directions.

It’s a truly shameless performance: Mr. McConnell is pretending to stand up for taxpayers against Wall Street while in fact doing just the opposite. In recent weeks, he and other Republican leaders have held meetings with Wall Street executives and lobbyists, in which the G.O.P. and the financial industry have sought to coordinate their political strategy.

And let me assure you, Wall Street isn’t lobbying to prevent future bank bailouts. If anything, it’s trying to ensure that there will be more bailouts. By depriving regulators of the tools they need to seize failing financial firms, financial lobbyists increase the chances that when the next crisis strikes, taxpayers will end up paying a ransom to stockholders and executives as the price of avoiding collapse.

Even more important, however, the financial industry wants to avoid serious regulation; it wants to be left free to engage in the same behavior that created this crisis. It’s worth remembering that between the 1930s and the 1980s, there weren’t any really big financial bailouts, because strong regulation kept most banks out of trouble. It was only with Reagan-era deregulation that big bank disasters re-emerged. In fact, relative to the size of the economy, the taxpayer costs of the savings and loan disaster, which unfolded in the Reagan years, were much higher than anything likely to happen under President Obama.

To understand what’s really at stake right now, watch the looming fight over derivatives, the complex financial instruments Warren Buffett famously described as “financial weapons of mass destruction.” The Obama administration wants tighter regulation of derivatives, while Republicans are opposed. And that tells you everything you need to know.

So don’t be fooled. When Mitch McConnell denounces big bank bailouts, what he’s really trying to do is give the bankers everything they want.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This is the kind of bullshit you can expect when you allow the extremists on the right to define and control the dialogue (Fox, Beck, Pallin, etc...).  Perhaps its time for the rest of us to "arm ourselves against the extremist elements". 
SEATTLE (AP) - A Washington state man has been charged with threatening to kill Democratic Sen. Patty Murray over her support for health care reform, leaving voicemail messages at her office saying she had a target on her back and "it only takes one piece of lead."
Federal agents arrested Charles Alan Wilson in Yakima, Wash., on Tuesday.

Murray's office in Seattle reported the threats amid a rash of ugliness aimed at lawmakers who supported the sweeping federal health care legislation. Some lawmakers have been spit on and several have reported receiving threatening calls.

The messages to Murray were left on voicemail from a blocked telephone number, FBI Special Agent Carolyn W. Woodbury wrote in a probable cause statement. Agents said they traced the calls to Wilson's home in Selah, near Yakima.

Wilson has a .38-caliber revolver registered to him and has a concealed carry permit for it, Woodbury wrote.

To confirm Wilson was the caller, one agent telephoned him and posed as a member of a group working to repeal the health care legislation, the statement said.

According to a excerpt of the conversation, Wilson confirmed he repeatedly called Murray as well as Washington's other Democratic senator, Maria Cantwell. He then stated: "I do pack, and I will not blink when I'm confronted. ... It's not a threat, it's a guarantee."

Murray's office told the FBI it had been receiving harassing messages from the caller for months, but they became more threatening as Congress was voting on the health care legislation.

"There's a target on your back now," said one message on March 22. "It only takes one piece of lead. Kill the (expletive) senator! ... Now that you've passed your health-care bill, let the violence begin."

In other messages over the next several days, the caller said, "I hope somebody puts a (expletive) bullet between your (expletive) eyes," and "I do believe that every one of you (expletive) socialist democratic progressive (expletives) need to be taken out."

And, he said, "I want to (expletive) kill you."

Wilson was scheduled to make an initial appearance at federal court in Yakima on Tuesday on one count of threatening a federal official. It was not immediately clear if he had obtained a lawyer.

Murray's office declined to comment on the arrest.